Readers recall ‘white horse,’ not ‘absolute truth’
Write “juicy hot dog,” and your readers may see a frankfurter nestled in a bun, slathered with mustard and onions. They may even taste it.
This “dual coding” — where your brain processes not only the words, but the sensual experience of the object the words describe — is one reason concrete copy is so powerful.
But does concrete copy — copy that shows instead of tells, that describes objects instead of ideas — help people remember messages better than abstract ones?
1. Concrete phrases nearly 4x more memorable.
Researchers at the University of Western Ontario aimed to find out. So they read study participants a series of concrete and abstract adjectives and nouns, then combined them into concrete and abstract phrases:
- Almost twice as many concrete words than abstract words.
- Nearly four times as many concrete phrases than abstract phrases.
The reason: Two concrete words become one image. It’s not any harder to see a square door than a door, for instance, so the phrases don’t take any extra effort to remember.
But abstract words like “impossible” and “amount” don’t paint pictures in your audience members’ minds. So instead of becoming images, they remain words. That makes it harder to remember abstract words — and harder still to remember abstract phrases.
People remember concrete words, phrases better
Double up: Concrete phrases become single images, making them easier to recall. But abstract phrases remain words, making them harder to remember
That’s important. Because making messages memorable is one of the four key responsibilities of a business communicator. After all, our job description is to get readers to:
- Pay attention to our messages.
- Understand them.
- Remember them.
- Act on them.
And that takes concrete details.
2. Research shows: Concrete copy sticks.
More than 40 years of research shows that readers remember information they can “see”:
- Researchers in one study asked community college students to read a 2,100-word literary story. When asked about the story 48 hours later, they had retained the images, but forgotten the words (Sadoski, Goetz, Olivarez, Lee and Roberts, 1990).
- Participants in another study recalled concrete texts about historical figures like Sandra Day O’Connor and Michelangelo 2x to 5x better than abstract texts — both immediately after reading and five days later (Sadoski, Goetz and Fritz, 1993).
- In another study, researchers had undergraduates read four one-paragraph excerpts of biographies about historical figures. When the topics were equally familiar, students remembered the concrete passages much better. But when students were more familiar with the topic of the abstract passage than the concrete ones, they recalled the abstract and concrete passages equally (Sadoski, Goetz and Avila, 1995).
- College students remembered paragraphs from Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic that they’d rated interesting 16 days after reading them. They did not remember those they’d rated important. Emotion also played an important role in remembering, according to this study (Sadoski and Quast, 1990).
- University undergraduates remembered 50% more sentences with concrete modifiers (“The ivory chess set fell off the table”) than those with without them (“The set fell off the table”) (Anderson, 1974).
- People remember concrete news stories 60% better than abstract ones, according toa study by a professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
Why are concrete details so effective?
These verbal images may form mental “hooks” that readers hang memories on, suggested researcher Allan Paivio (1971, 1986). He called that the “conceptual peg hypothesis.”
3. Concrete text + concrete headline = 70% greater recall.
Two professors from Texas A&M University and one from the University of the Andes wanted to learn whether concrete or abstract headlines and passages were more memorable.
First, the professors crafted a series of passages — each 56 words long and written at about the same level of readability.
Half of the passages were abstract:
The other half were concrete:
Next, the researchers wrote a series of abstract and concrete headlines for each of the 56-word passages. They included:
|Abstract headline||Concrete headline|
|Domestic Devices||Countertop Gadgets|
|Preferred Items||Favorite Junk|
|The Laws of Lift||How a Plane Flies|
|A Science Find||Jungles in Ice|
|Mortal Justice||Death Penalty|
Then they asked a group of graduate students to read the copy and headlines. After time had passed, the researchers brought the students back and asked them what they remembered.
The students remembered:
- The concrete text with concrete headlines best of all
- The concrete text with abstract headlines second best
- The abstract text, regardless of title, least
In fact, the students remembered the concrete text 70% better than the abstract text.
Marry the concrete with the abstract.
So show and tell. Illustrate your ideas with concrete details.
Do that, and watch retention soar: One study showed that placing a concrete sentence before an abstract sentence about the same topic increased recall of the abstract sentence by 70% (Sadoski, Goetz and Fritz, 1993).
As James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, counsels:
“Make the important interesting.”
Sources: Ian Begg, “Recall of Meaningful Phrases,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, vol. 11 (1972), pp. 431-439
Prabu David, “News Concreteness and Visual-Verbal Association: Do News Pictures Narrow the Recall Gap Between Concrete and Abstract News?” Human Communication Research, Vol. 25, No. 2, December 1998, pp. 180-201
S. Hidi and W.H. Baird, “Strategies for increasing text-based interest and students’ recall of expository texts,” Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 1988, pp. 465-483
R.W. Kulhavy and I. Swenson, “Imagery instructions and the comprehension of text, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 45, 47-51
TJ Larkin & Sandar Larkin, “Concrete words lead to better performance,” Larkin Page No. 31, March 2006
Allan Paivio, Imagery and verbal processes, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971
Allan Paivio, Mental representations: A dual coding approach, Oxford University Press, 1986
Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “A causal model of sentence recall: Effects of familiarity, concreteness, comprehensibility and interestingnesss,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 1993, pp. 5-16
Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 1993, pp. 291-304
Mark Sadoski; E.T. Goetz; A. Olivarez, Jr.; S. Lee; and N.M. Roberts. “Imagination in story reading: The role of imagery, verbal recall, story analysis and processing levels,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 55-70
Mark Sadoski, Ernest T. Goetz and Maximo Rodriguez, “Engaging Texts: Effects of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Recall in Four Text Types,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, 2000, pp. 85-95
Mark Sadoski and Z. Quast, “Reader response and long term recall for journalistic text: The roles of imagery, affect and importance,” Reading Research Quarterly, Vol.25, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 256-272
S.E. Wade and R.B. Adams, “Effects of importance and interest on recall of biographical text,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 331-353